Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Walking On The Moon - Meeting up with my favourite Dr Who and James Dean's best friend on Moonbase Alpha

 In 1976 I was a student doing my Arts Degree. As I was an original nerd - or as we called them back then, an 'anorak' - my thesis was on Science Fiction Art and it's Influence On Real World Design. Pretentious, moi?

My long-suffering lecturer Dave Pearce advised me that as there was a new Gerry Anderson SF series being made up in Pinewood Studios outside london, perhaps I should get in touch with the production designer?....

To cut a long story short I was invited up and spent a few happy days wandering around Moonbase Alpha and meeting up with among others, Patrick Troughton, Martin Landau, Catherine Schell and later, Roger Moore, Cubby Brocolli and a certain golden-skinned robot...

In 2009 I was asked to write an account of my expedition for Andersonic Magazine. Here is that article...



WALKING ON THE MOON ©John Sinclair 2009

The set of Moonbase Alpha with Martin Landau centre bottom

‘Not there!’ I almost screamed as Jim dumped his super-8 camera and bag on the little chair at the back of the sound stage.
 ‘Ah, they won’t mind,’ my college pal answered off-handedly, and started rooting through his gear. ‘I’m sure there’s more film in here somewhere,’ he muttered.
‘Excuse me,’ a bemused voice came from behind us. I turned around to see a tall man in a futuristic outfit standing there and looking surprised at this unauthorized use of his chair. Oops.
Jim....’ I said, emphasising my words with a poke to his back. He didn’t answer, lost in his own private world. Or Moon....
‘Sorry,’ I stammered to the gentleman, and held out my hand in apology, forgetting my borrowed camera was still in it. The man who’s name was on the back of the folding ‘director’s’ chair noticed and smiled. ‘Nice camera,’ he said.
‘Er- yeah,’ I managed, and held it out to him. He took it eagerly and peered through the view-finder.
‘So it’s a semi-automatic?’ He pronounced the word Semi, the American way. Like the truck.
‘..Er, yeah...’ halfway through the second year of an Arts Degree course that included photography, I still knew damn-all about the inner (or outer) workings of a camera, so I just nodded.
He, however, may have been a very successful actor, but the visual arts were his first love. He knew photography and how to really use a camera.
‘You should see my favourite SLR – I’ve had it since the 50’s.’ Excitedly, he played with the focus of my college Praktika. ‘Not bad lens – 35-57mm?’ He could have been talking Martian for all I knew. He did something to the metering, and went in close on the lovely alien walking by, who smiled and curtsied gracefully, ‘Took some great pictures in Hollywood with that old camera.  Lots of black-and white stills of my best friend from those days with it – you might have heard of him...’
‘You’re wanted on set, Mr L.’
‘Oh. Speak to you later.’ And with that he gave me the camera back and went off to save Moonbase Alpha from certain doom. Again. All in a days’ work for actor Martin Landau but this particular day was to be one of the most exciting of my life. More about his best friend later....
It was December 1976 and I was standing on the command module set of Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999. An Art and Design student doing my presumptuously-titled thesis The Art of SF Movies and their Effect on Real-World Design, I had been invited up to the show’s Pinewood base by long-time AP films production designer Keith Wilson.
And so here we were. Or rather, there we were. My pal Dimitri (known as Jim for obvious linguistic reasons) was doing his thesis on movie marketing, and so I had wrangled him an invite too.
After a lot of preparation, including borrowing that camera and getting the college techs to load it for me (a decision I would later come to regret) Jim and I arrived at the studios bright and early on a dim, dark and tremendously exciting day.
For those who’ve never been to one, film studios are an awful letdown: resembling nothing so much as typical industrial parks – which is what they really are- there is little to see of the magic made therein.  Despite that, Jim shot lots of footage as we arrived; even shooting some of horses grazing in a nearby field.
The Century 21 office building looked very familiar though.... Afterwards I was to learn that it had been used in every ITC show you could think of from The Saint and The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) etc. right up to The New Avengers (which Keith Wilson would get to design the next season)and many films, including much of the Carry On series.
In fact, we had both not long seen Carry on Again, Doctor on TV, and this same corridor we were waiting in had played (if an inanimate object can be said to actually play a part) the Maternity Room waiting area. Just think; Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor and Hattie Jacques had actually walked these cheaply-carpeted halls! A few years later I was to see Tobe Hoopers 80’s flop Lifeforce, in which an extremely naked and extraordinarily beautiful French actress called Mathilda May had sat down in the very same chair I used.....
But I digress.
The complete dvd collection
We were ushered on up to meet Keith in his corner office on the 2nd floor. A very friendly man, he was in charge of the whole ‘look’ of the show and ran the art and construction crews. He showed us around his rooms, which were festooned with initial artwork for the next episode in production, then down the hall to where the various draftsman and technicians worked. We were shown how the conceptual drawings Keith generated went along the line to become full sets, props and costumes. As we walked around, one of the costume team came in with swatches of glittery fabric for the boss-man’s approval. They were to be used for an alien costume in the next episode.
‘It’s a hard job,’ he laughed, remembering how he had had to measure guest actress Joan Collins up and down for a particularly interesting outfit, ‘but someone’s got to do it!’
Out of there, he led us down the stairs and back through reception and straight through some doors and straight into a very recognizable passageway - a Moonbase corridor from the show! I hadn’t realized that the building was also a shooting stage, and barely managed to control my excitement when we came right out into the main control room set for the show.
The show being filmed was series two’s ‘The Dorcans’, but the lights were low as the stage wasn’t being used just then. Giving us the grand tour, Keith showed us how the set worked – how the walls of each set had to be able to ‘fly’ – that is, could be removed easily and safely for camera access. For the first time I realized that every set and prop constructed for any show had to work in the real world.
All the monitors were real, many of the control switches on the desks actually worked, and he proudly showed off his baby; one of the show’s hand-held communicators, which held a genuine 3” TV, at that time a technological marvel and incredibly expensive. ‘That’s the smallest operational TV screen manufactured anywhere. Cost a fortune.’
He pointed out the TV camera set up to live-feed the tiny unit. ‘That’s so we can have real-time actor interaction (sic) – we do it sometimes with the station monitors,’ he grinned, ‘If we get to do a third season, I’m hoping to get a colour handset. If the budget will stretch to it, that is.’ As I played with...  toyed with... er, inspected the communicator I remember marvelling that even with all this high-tech stuff, the writing on the prop was still done with Letraset, the same damn-annoying sticky-down lettering stuff that I was having such trouble with in college.
He then took us through into another, busier, stage where technicians were building a realistic-looking crawl space for the Commander to , um, crawl through; ‘It’s a shame you weren’t here last week,’ he sighed, ‘as we had a whole alien world set up in here. It’s all in the skips now though.’
And then we were warned to be quiet, as we were ushered into the set being currently filmed, an alien chamber, where the director was walking guest star Patrick Troughton through his death scene. Keith left us then, and I stood quietly as the ex-Dr Who worked out his actions. It was then that I noticed Jim dropping his camera bag down on an unoccupied seat.....’Out of film, gotta change it.’ ‘Excuse me,’ came a voice from behind us and that’s when we met Martin Landau.
Afterwards, as Mr Landau left to do his scene (and my heart rate had dropped down to almost normal levels), Pat Troughton sat down next to me and started to chat. Somehow I manged to respond (he was Dr Who for Chrissakes!!!) and we were soon getting on great. He wondered what we were doing here and the conversation turned towards the show. He’d never seen Space: 1999 before; ‘it’s on Saturday mornings, and that’s when my wife takes me shopping’.
I mentioned he was my favourite Doctor, (‘bless you,’ he smiled and graciously gave me an autograph) and asked if he ever watched any SF TV. ‘Not really’, he said, even though he had done a lot of it and in the movies. I brought up Jason and the Argonauts; ‘Oh, now that was fun. Two weeks in Greece sunbathing and doing the occasional bit of waving a stick at things that weren’t there, and then a few more days in the studios six months later doing close-ups of the same. Looked marvellous when it was finished. No idea at all how it was done.’ Did he ever watch Dr Who nowadays? He shook his head. ‘More of a Kojak man myself. Still a fantasy, but.... Anyway, the wife adores him.’  I said I preferred Starsky and Hutch (I was young, okay?). ‘There you are; like to like. I like action stuff about middle-aged men and you like dashing young men driving around in fast cars and kissing pretty girls.’
Catherine Schell and the very monster from that day (on right)
A monster walked up and threw its arms around the stunning Catherine Schell (it had been very hard to concentrate on Mr. Troughton with ‘Maya’ just off to my left...), who just giggled. It was a stuntman in costume for a metamorphosis bit with Maya. I have a problem with my memory here; I’m positive that it was the legendary Alf Joint in the gear; ‘I’m sorry I can’t make it any taller, guv, but I can’t get any heels on in this lot’, but research tells me that it was Roy Scammel in the suit. Ah well.
Lunch was called, and Keith took us over to the famous Pinewood restaurant. The swanky venue was already filled to bursting with blokes in bright orange boiler suits; actors portraying henchmen in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ then underway on the vast 007 stage. I found myself standing next to Bond himself, Roger Moore. Jim was happily chatting away to the series legendary producer Cubby Broccoli – and incidentally when I asked him later Jim had no idea who he had been chatting to!
 Keith knew him of old and Mr Moore was soon regaling us with tales of hilarity behind the scenes (he had a favourite gag of walking out of closets mid-scene or corpsing at inopportune moments) and maintained that the only difference between playing the Saint and Bond was that the budgets were bigger and the girls were better. Or was that the other way around?
After lunch, Keith walked us by the immense submarine base from the film, but that’s a whole separate story. Dropping a massive name here, the very next year I was to stand on another moon set on that vast stage and Superman himself Christopher Reeve would fly over my head....
Back on the set, I was allowed right into the middle of things to take as many pictures as I wanted (‘just don’t get in the way’). So I did just that, and if the camera seemed to be taking more frames that it should, I just accepted that it had extra features that I didn’t know about... Jim started to take some film as well, but an assistant director asked him to knock it off; stills were okay it appeared, but not actual footage.
Everyone posed for me; Catherine Schell did another little curtsey, Patrick Troughton gave a ministerial stare and Keith showed off his beloved props - a fan-boys dream. But all too soon it was time to go.
As we left, Mr Landau casually said, ‘if you come by again, let me know and I’ll show you some of those pictures of my pal. See you.’ And off we went. Mr Wilson said we’d gotten on well with Mr Landau, and did he tell us any of his tales of Hollywood? No, we said, and that’s when Keith told us who Martin Landau’s best pal was.
James Dean.
Back in college the next week, I handed over the camera to the techs to process the film for me. The tech went off into the dark room and came back out with a smile on his face. You know that feeling you get when you know bad news is coming? ‘Hey – you didn’t put the film in properly – its blank!’ he said, grinning. After a moment of silence, I managed to gasp out that HE had loaded it. ‘Did I? Tough $%^!’
I went back to my department more than slightly shell-shocked. My brilliant lecturer Dave Pearce – who had placed that first phone call to Pinewood for me - had heard what happened by then, and he dragged me right back down. He went off at the techs, cutting them a new hole and threatening them with the sack! Anyway, they were not fired – then, but both were to get official warnings and were a lot more diligent in their duties after that....
Fine, but I still didn’t have any pictures. Dave Pearce suggested that I should get in touch with Keith Wilson about my predicament, and he kindly sent me some production stills. What a guy! From then on it was my ambition to work for Gerry Anderson in some way..... So I finished off my thesis and sat back and waited to see ‘my’ episode. And waited. And waited.
For more than 20 years, as it turned out, as HTW Wales didn’t show season 2 until the late 1990’s and then only in an early-morning graveyard slot.
What did I think of it? Meh. It hadn’t aged well, and truthfully, my expectations – built up over all those years – were impossible to reach. It was an okay episode, but nothing special.
I was to go back to Pinewood many times over the years – I was there with Production Designer John Barry on Superman 1 and 2  (like I said above, on the 007 stage)– and went down with him to watch some reshoots of a little film he was doing called Star Wars. Ever hear of it? By the way he was working out of Keith’s old office....
Nowadays I don’t go to live-action studios very often as my work in the industry led me away from the Art department and back behind the laptop. I write mostly children’s TV – Fireman Sam, et al – but I’m still waiting for that phone call from Gerry Anderson....
John Sinclair October 2009

I was to meet Gerry himself a couple of times when I became a journalist. What a guy!

Any mistakes and erroneous dates entirely mine due to a faulty memory and thirty years of wine, women and Brains Beer and much too much time watching the many works of Gerry Anderson.....

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